Sunday, October 17, 2010

One Hit Obits

I've been a bit too busy to keep up with all the deaths in recent weeks, but I'll try to catch up, beginning with these three actresses. They all had successful careers lasting decades, but each is best remembered for a single, signature performance which seemed to define her career.
Gloria Stuart


"When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927 I was voted the girl most likely to succeed. I didn't realise it would take so long."
It did indeed take a long time for Stuart to gain star status. She was spotted in a production of The Seagull in 1932, and was courted by both Paramount and Universal. She took the contract offering the most money, a decision she was to regret for the rest of her life. Universal, at the time, was the home of the lower budgeted films, and they worked their contract players mercilessly. Stuart was deeply unhappy with her working conditions, which lead to her early involvement with the formation of the Actors Guild (which would later become SAG). The films she made in her youth were largely forgettable; even the more well-known of them were star vehicles for someone else. She played opposite James Cagney, Eddie Cantor, and Shirley Temple, though you'd be hard pressed to recall much about those performances. She enjoyed a nice working relationship with one of the only star directors on the Universal lot, James Whale, for whom she made The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man.

The title of her autobiography, I Just Kept Hoping, is a good illustration of her attitude through most of her career; she never graduated to celebrity status, even when she was playing the female lead in her films. She finally abandoned Hollywood and appeared in only a handful of projects for the next 50 years, until a casting director from Titanic called to see if she was still alive. She later reflected that she landed the role because she was the only star of her generation still ambulatory, lucid, and free of alcohol dependency. Her character narrated Titanic, and her performance as Kate Winslet in the future earned a sentimental Oscar nomination in 1997. She died last month at the age of 100, and will be remembered as the oldest person to have ever been nominated for Hollywood's top award.

Barbara Billingsley

Everybody who worked with her claimed she was a far superior comedic actress than was evidenced by her signature role, the wise and gentle June Cleaver. She had numerous TV credits before landing the matriarch on Leave it to Beaver, a role for which she would become so well-known, she had trouble finding substantive work afterward. The show was cancelled by CBS after its first season in 1957; ABC snapped it up, and it became one of the iconic family sitcoms of the late 50s-early 60s. Her appearance in the series, doing housework in pearls and heels, is often mocked these days. The pearls were her idea, as she was self-conscious about a hollow in her neck which the jewelry kept hidden, and the high heels were added to her wardrobe in later seasons when the actors playing her sons started to tower over her.

Barbara reprised her role in several sequels to the series, and also made cameo appearances as June Cleaver on Spielberg's Amazing Stories and on Roseanne. She can be seen to good effect in the parody hit Airplane!, in which she translates some "jive talk:"

Barbara Billingsley died yesterday at the age of 96.
Billie Mae Richards

She was a Canadian variety artist and voice actress, whose career on radio lasted longer than her American counterparts, as Canadian radio continued to produce fiction programming long after the USA had abandoned such concepts. It was for this reason that producers Rankin and Bass went to Canada to cast their TV special based on a hit holiday song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Richards's ability to sound like a boy landed her the voice of the title character, a role she reprised in a number of sequels. The special is now a Christmas perennial, though Richards (who was billed as "Billy Richards" in the credits) received residual payments for only the first three years of the show's airing. The fact that star Burl Ives received continual residuals for his work was a particularly sore subject for our gal.

Billie Mae also voiced several Care Bear movies, among other vocal work, and was a proud graduate of the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto. I did not make that up. Richards died last month at the age of 88.